In the weeks since Jose Fernandez’s death, players and coaches from around the sport have shared countless stories about what the young and gifted Marlins ace meant to them. If there is one constant among these memories and anecdotes, it’s that nobody had more fun than Fernandez.
This week, Sports Illustrated’s SL Price published a terrific longer story about Fernandez, which included one such anecdote from Marlins third baseman Chris Johnson.
Before he was a Marlin, Johnson played in Atlanta, and was on the field when Fernandez hit his first career home run.
When Fernandez hit that home run, he watched his shot clear the fence, and then spit in the general direction of Johnson as he rounded the base-path. Fernandez’s reaction angered Johnson, and caused the benches to clear. Afterwards, the whole incident sparked an all-too-familiar debate about the unwritten rules of baseball.
Eventually Fernandez apologised to Johnson and to the Braves, but as SI noted, tension lingered until Johnson signed with the Marlins.
But when Johnson arrived in Miami, it was none other than Fernandez who greeted him and welcomed him to the team. They became fast friends.
“How he treated me, how he went about his business, how he was the same when he won or lost, loud and smiling: It made me think this kid is not showing up the game,” Johnson said. “He’s not showing any player up. He’s out there completely free, having as much fun as possible. And then him getting out of Cuba, we talked about how he got caught and went to jail and didn’t see his mum, and didn’t know how long he was going to be in jail because they don’t tell you over there: stuff I never knew. I’m mad at myself for having that altercation….”
Ultimately, Johnson said, it was Fernandez who helped him adopt a new and more appreciative outlook toward baseball.
“He changed me,” Johnson said. “I smile. Before, I was always intense and took the game as a job and had to make it, and had to stay in the big leagues, had to get the contract, had to be the guy. No: You don’t have to do anything. You made it, you got to the big leagues, you’re in the United States of America, got a beautiful family. The game is fun. He played the game how I played the game in Little League. That’s how everybody should be in the big leagues.”
Every time the topic of unwritten rules comes up, it’s clearer and clearer that players just need to take themselves — and their sport — less seriously.
Jose Fernandez seemed to do that instinctively. And as Johnson’s story shows, it rubbed off on those around him.
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